SPORT The Sport of Social Media

How elite athletes manage their online followings.

5 mins

Social media has become an integral part of sports culture, allowing fans to take part in collective commentary in real time and engage directly with their favourite athletes - but what are the benefits and challenges for the athletes themselves when they have a direct relationship with fans - and detractors - at the end of their fingertips?

Maya Gabeira

Two-time Women’s World Cup champions Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger recently spoke to The Edge about the pleasures and pitfalls of social media, as have the golfer Tommy Fleetwood and the surfers Kai Lenny and Maya Gabeira. How do these different elite athletes manage this two-way relationship with fans, and what is the right balance between engaging with social media and putting the phone down?

Increased Control

Before social media, the public perception of athletes was constructed and controlled by their respective PR teams and an infinite chorus of media commentators, often in ways that were beyond the control of athletes themselves. Now that social media has become a fixture in our daily lives, it’s no surprise that most athletes use these platforms to engage with fans directly, without the need for traditional media networks or marketing middle-men. 

Most of the time this relatively new paradigm is mutually beneficial – for fans, it enhances their enjoyment of being spectators. For athletes, cultivating relationships with fans can be a way to create important opportunities, challenge negative press, advance causes that they care about, or simply share positive experiences and foster supportive, empowering communities. Athletes’ increased control of their own public images has changed the landscape of sports media, but this level of transparency and direct communication has both positives and negatives.

Ali Krieger & Ashlyn Harris

The Biggest Challenge

When The Edge spoke to TAG Heuer Golf Ambassador Tommy Fleetwood last year he acknowledged the opportunities social media has created for athletes. ‘Everybody wants to maximise their potential as a professional as much as possible, and social media is very important. There are a lot of benefits from it’. He also recognised that the constant stream of unsolicited feedback can be a distraction, or even an addiction. ‘I think it’s the biggest challenge for athletes today, having the ability to put it all to the back of your mind and not worry about what people are saying’.

Athletes are rarely driven by fame, but fame is an inevitable consequence of being the best in your field. Many sports teams and organisations now offer their athletes mental health support to help them deal with the pressure of global attention, and internet companies themselves are also taking responsibility for the potentially negative consequences of online commentary – earlier this year Facebook launched a raft of policies and features specifically designed to protect athletes from negativity. Some sports psychologists have suggested that methods for managing social media should be built into sports training programs, and even early childhood education, and Tommy Fleetwood agreed. ‘It’s such a big part of life now, it should be something that you get taught about in school’.

Tommy Fleetwood

Encouraging Empowerment

Today’s fans want relatability from their sports stars, and for people from demographics that have been historically underrepresented, feeling connected to trailblazing athletes can be personally empowering and initiate real progressive change – in sport, and in society. Athletes with a sense of social responsibility often consider their encouragement of this empowerment to be an important part of their responsibility as public figures.

When The Edge spoke to U.S soccer legends Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger recently, Harris elaborated on this sense of responsibility. ‘A lot of our life has been about showing vulnerability through social media. We are very open with our life, because connecting with people is an important aspect of who we are.’ The couple have clearly worked at developing their balanced outlook. ‘Ali and I have had a lot of conversations about how to have a healthy approach to it. It’s a platform for us to get our message out, but then we have to cut it off and be present in the life we’re living.

Krieger agreed, and added that for people with strict training and travelling schedules, social media is as much about family as it is fans. ‘Sometimes you get caught up in it, and I think that’s difficult for some, but it’s really important for us to connect with our fans, and our family members too. Our family members can check out what’s going on in our lives on social media, because we don’t get to see them that often. So that’s a reason I really enjoy it’. 

Brazilian big wave surfer and TAG Heuer ambassador Maya Gabeira also told The Edge about the benefits of social media when your career takes you all over the world. ‘Nowadays I find it much easier to be distant physically and still be extremely connected with my family and friends. We’re much more connected now, worldwide’. Like Krieger and Harris, Gabeira has found that this connectivity and the possibility of being honest and open online has been rewarding for her career, particularly during challenging times. ‘Being vocal about my mental health has been tremendously helpful for me, in being able to achieve the things that I have’.

Enjoy the Process

Fellow TAG Heuer Surfing Ambassador Kai Lenny has admitted that, for him, social media can be a threat to the focus it takes to stay on top of your game, but like Tommy Fleetwood he accepts it as an inevitable part of contemporary sporting success. ‘For the most part I’ve embraced what it takes to be a professional athlete, and I enjoy the process’

Not only does Lenny embrace it, but he’s incredibly generous. He regularly tweets about spectacular wipeouts and uploads breathtaking ‘POV’ videos to his Youtube channel. ‘Being a professional athlete isn’t just about riding waves. It’s about the content you produce. As an athlete, you have to be willing to adapt, and do things that will engage people, and hopefully they’ll want to see you grow, and grow with you’

Lenny has a sense of responsibility towards his followers, and enjoys allowing them to share in the thrills of surfing. ‘People are always so curious about what it’s like to get caught inside a giant wave, and I have an opportunity to give them that experience. It’s just fun to see the look on people’s faces, when they see something that they’ve never seen before. It gives them a kind of a joy, or rush’. As Lenny himself puts it, he gets ‘destroyed, so you don’t have to’.

Kai Lenny

The Perfect Combination

Maya Gabeira also spoke about the responsibility she feels to those who look to her for inspiration, but in her case this has meant sharing the lows, as well as the highs. After nearly drowning in a wipe-out in 2013, Gabeira was in recovery for months. Despite the pain and anxiety, she felt compelled to be open about her difficult journey with fans. ‘It is my responsibility. I think it’s fair to share what I went through. I think there are lessons there. And if I can help one person, two people, that’s wonderful’

For Gabeira, the life of an athlete and the life of a public figure are not in conflict, but hand-in-hand – ‘I just want to surf. That’s what I love most. But as I grow older, I need to feel more fulfilled, and I try to find ways to do that through different causes, and different types of work. It keeps me motivated in my sport. If I can keep surfing and also keep having a voice on things that are important to me, and to humanity, that’s the perfect combination’.

Positive, Balanced Attitude

Everybody with a social media account knows that it can sometimes be time-consuming, but it should be no surprise that athletes like Harris, Krieger, Fleetwood and Lenny have a generally positive, balanced attitude to their vast online followings. It isn’t that they don’t recognise the potential for distraction and negativity on social media, but that they see these aspects as yet more challenges to be overcome, with reward on the other side. Perhaps most significantly, they are all passionate about their respective sports, and see their ability to share that passion with fans who support them as both a pleasure and a privilege.

The self-control and mental resilience it takes to be the best of the best translates to every area of their lives, and athletes at this level know their ability to drown out the noise during crucial moments is everything. Each of them has made a choice to take the rough with the smooth, enjoying the benefits of social media without taking the rest too seriously. As Tommy Fleetwood told us, ‘having an Instagram account dedicated to your hair is kind of cool, isn’t it?’ 

We’ll have to take his word for it!